Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models

In April this year, Chelsea Library marked 40 years since it moved to its present site, at Chelsea Old Town Hall. We celebrated that anniversary in the Sixties fashion style, since the library is famous for its extensive Costume and fashion collection. It has a wide range of books on the history of costume from its earliest times to present days, stage costumes, the history of twentieth century dress, including books on prominent designers, and so on.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve decided to bring back fashion talks and workshops to the library. We invited John-Michael O’Sullivan to give a talk on ‘Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models’.

He spoke about top Fifties fashion model, Barbara Mullen, and he has compiled an extraordinary list of celebrities, fashion models, fashion designers, film icons and aristocrats for his talk. From debutantes to Teddy Girls, and from Carnival Queens to couture stars, the lives of the women whose images shaped Britain’s beauty ideal in the 1950s, and continue to do so today, need to be better known to a wider audience.

The audience at Chelsea Library was, indeed, very much impressed by John-Michael’s captivating talk. Charming and witty he led us through this extraordinary alphabet of mid-century models, occasionally interrupted by loud sighs and comments from the engaged listeners, several of them having personal connections with the mentioned models.

In his article for The Observer, about Barbara Mullen, the misfit model of the 1950s, John-Michael wrote:

“The era’s other great models (sex bomb Suzy Parker, platinum blonde Sunny Harnett, long-limbed Dovima, all-American Jean Patchett, exquisite Evelyn Tripp) were always reliably, recognisably themselves. But Mullen was different – beanpole-tall, with slicked-back hair, startled eyes and a rosebud mouth. Her features, in front of a lens, somehow morphed, endlessly transforming her into somebody else.”

While I was gathering information for the talk, flicking through our collection of Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars  from the  1950s, I found it extremely difficult to find the names of those gorgeous models, yet, everything else was listed – from gowns, lipstick, jewellery, to location and the photographer’s name. That was the time before Twiggy, before Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer or Kate Moss – before the times of superstars.

As John-Michael wrote:

“These days, most top models are social media stars in their own right and have the power to shape and share their stories themselves. But most of their predecessors died without ever being given the chance to share their experiences. Barbara Mullen, who turned ninety in 2017, is one of the few survivors of a remarkable era.”

Charming and modest Barbara told John-Michael that she and her friends were just ordinary girls – young, thin and extremely lucky. She was wondering why people today would be interested in their lives.

John-Michael has launched a campaign with publishing house, Unbound which is producing books by crowdfunding. He has been gathering the funds to print ‘The Replacement Girl’ Mullen’s first biography. I am sure that it will be fascinating to see that era “through the eyes of one of that pioneering generation’s last survivors”.

For more information on the fundraising campaign to publish Barbara’s story, visit: Unbound’s website

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

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